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David S. Goyer Explains His 'Graphic Novel' Approach to Renaissance Intrigue in 'Da Vinci's Demons'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire April 9, 2013 at 12:21PM

David S. Goyer is best known for his superhero stories -- he wrote the screenplays for "Batman Begins," "Blade" and the upcoming "Man of Steel," among others. So of course, though his new drama "Da Vinci's Demons" is about an actual human historical figure, he's managed to find something larger than life and extraordinary in the Renaissance painter, inventor and all-around genius.
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David S. Goyer on the set of 'Da Vinci's Demons'
Starz David S. Goyer on the set of 'Da Vinci's Demons'

You're someone who works in both television and film, and this is certainly an ambitious project in many ways -- do you feel that TV has become a more welcoming landscape for that?

Yeah -- we are in the golden age of television right now. There are so many incredible shows that are happening in cable television in particular. I honestly love nothing better than digging into a really good serialized show, whether it's "Breaking Bad" or "Game of Thrones" or "Justified." There's nothing better than being able to watch something that has almost a novelistic approach where you can sit back and know you're going to go on a journey for four or five seasons and watch characters grow and change. It's an exciting time for storytelling. Some of the most groundbreaking work is happening in cable television right now.

Was having more space, narratively, to stretch out something you had particular interest in?

I personally like serialized storytelling. You don't tend to do as much of it on network and cable loves it. There are certain goal posts that you want to hit at the end of the season, but it's nice to be able to stretch out and say you don't have to resolve that story this episode or even this season. That's cool.

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You've made superhero comparisons in speaking about the show. Would you say it's a tendency of yours to find those qualities in your characters?

Of course. I grew up reading comic books, pulp books, mystery and science fiction and fantasy. I'm a geek, I make no pretensions otherwise. It's the stuff that I love writing about. I like creating worlds. In a way, doing a graphic novel approach to Renaissance Florence is not that different from creating a science fiction world, because there are things we know but there are also a lot of things we don't know that we have to make up and take an educated guess at.

And that means getting into the mindset of a society that's very different from ours -- like the way the crowd reacts to that hanging.

Right, where they all cheered. A hanging was like, hey, they're gonna put on a show. Or worse -- they're going to draw and quarter someone or break someone on wheels. They'd be vendors that would sell food. It was just crazy. Da Vinci was the greatest artist of all time and yet Da Vinci went to hangings. There's a sketch that Da Vinci did of a person who was hung who's a character we see in this first season. Renaissance Florence is where humanism was invented, but there were also these incredibly inhumane things going on. That juxtaposition is what makes for a really interesting show.

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There's also the class structure, and that sense of frustration for Da Vinci because of how he was born.

He was a bastard, so he wasn't allowed to inherit wealth, he couldn't inherit land. His father was Lorenzo's notary, kind of his lawyer, and his father would come across him in the streets -- this is true -- and would literally ignore him and pretend that he wasn't his son. This was a guy who was one of the greatest men in history, who couldn't get his dad to acknowledge him. They had a lot of issues between them.

How much of the supernatural can we expect in the story?

There are things that are going to happen in the show that may or may not be supernatural. We're going to skirt the edges. There's something that happens in the cave that is one of the mysteries of the show that we hint at in the first episode. Something will happen later on in the season that seems paradoxical. Mysticism and the supernatural are embedded in the show -- it's called "Da Vinci's Demons" for a reason, and it's not just metaphorical.

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You've said that 80% of the series is based on things that actually happened. To what degree did you feel beholden to historical fact?

We were beholden to it in the sense that if we were going to diverge from history, we were very clear on what did happen or how something might have worked. More than anything, when we would invent stuff it would be if there were blank spots in the historical record -- fortunately, in the case of Da Vinci, there are quite a few. I feel like that gives me a lot of license as a creator to do whatever I want.

Plotting out this eight-episode arc, did you build things in for the idea of further seasons?

Before Starz greenlit the show, I had to prove to them that it could last at least five seasons and had to pitch them an overall arc. I absolutely know how the show ends. There are actually some Easter eggs hidden in the first scene in the first episode that will hint to how the whole show ends.

How do you prepare for that? I'm sure it's a more comfortable position to be in than, say, a network show where it might not make it through a season, but it still requires the ability to shift that end post around.

You never know. You hope that you go on that long. I know that Starz is really happy with the show -- they've been incredibly supportive of where I want to take it creatively. More so than any other situation I've had with television, that's for sure. I deliberately attempted to challenge people's expectations, so hopefully we'll get there, we'll go at least five seasons.

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